One of the world's top ex­perts in coro­nary heart dis­ease is spear­head­ing a new gene edit­ing up­start out to trans­form the field

As head of the Cen­ter for Hu­man Ge­net­ic Re­search at Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal and the Broad’s Car­dio­vas­cu­lar Dis­ease Ini­tia­tive, Sekar Kathire­san has oc­cu­pied a sin­gu­lar po­si­tion as one of the world’s lead­ing ex­perts on the con­nec­tion be­tween ge­net­ics and coro­nary heart dis­ease. He’s tracked how peo­ple dealt a bad ge­net­ic hand — and the el­e­vat­ed risks that come with it — can lim­it in­her­ent dan­gers by lifestyle changes, and pon­dered over the ef­fects of dai­ly drugs used to treat mass pa­tient groups. And he’s reached a sim­ple con­clu­sion:

None of it is re­al­ly work­ing. 

In par­tic­u­lar, none of that is any­where near as use­ful as the ge­net­ic mu­ta­tions that he’s seen that con­fer a low­er risk of dy­ing and car­dio events. Par­tic­u­lar­ly the in­di­vid­u­als who car­ry mu­ta­tions “which break ei­ther of two genes — APOC3 or ANGPTL3 — rapid­ly clear triglyc­eride-rich lipopro­teins from the cir­cu­la­tion” and pro­tect them from heart at­tack.

Now, he’s mak­ing a pro­fes­sion­al leap to see if he and a squad of in­ves­ti­ga­tors at a new­ly launched biotech can dra­mat­i­cal­ly change the im­per­fect sta­tus quo through gene edit­ing.

“Imag­ine,” he tells me, “an in­jec­tion ad­min­is­tered once in life that safe­ly con­fers last­ing pro­tec­tion.”

No more pills. No fleet­ing com­mit­ments to healthy lifestyles that can’t stretch past Jan­u­ary. But a wide­spread and durable shar­ing of the same health ben­e­fits he’s seen in the very, very few. That’s the dream.

To­day, Kathire­san is step­ping down from his lofty aca­d­e­m­ic roles and mak­ing his de­but as CEO of Verve Ther­a­peu­tics, which is tak­ing its place in the hotbed of gene ther­a­py work around Cam­bridge, MA. The small team of 10 — soon to dou­ble in size — may not come close to ri­val­ing the big biotechs that oc­cu­py the streets in and around Har­vard and MIT. But rel­a­tive­ly few can claim the same kinds of con­nec­tions in the realms of drug sci­ence.

Ki­ran Musunuru

An­oth­er car­dio ge­net­ics ex­pert, Penn’s Ki­ran Musunuru and Har­vard pro­fes­sor J Kei­th Joung, who co-found­ed gene ther­a­py pi­o­neer Ed­i­tas, are on board as sci­en­tif­ic co-founders. There’s an al­liance with Beam Ther­a­peu­tics, the up­start next-gen gene edit­ing out­fit found­ed by Feng Zhang, one of 3 sci­en­tists wide­ly cred­it­ed with ush­er­ing in the CRISPR rev­o­lu­tion that has armed re­searchers around the world with ef­fec­tive tools to ac­com­plish their work. And Ver­i­ly will help work on the nanopar­ti­cles they plan to use for de­liv­ery.

Burt Adel­man, the for­mer EVP of R&D at Bio­gen, will chair the board, which in­cludes the Broad’s chief da­ta of­fi­cer, An­tho­ny Philip­pakis.

Beam will pro­vide some of the tech, and has an op­tion to step in on fu­ture com­mer­cial­iza­tion. Verve has al­so nailed down CRISPR patents, in­clud­ing Cas9 and Cas12a (Cpf1), from the Broad In­sti­tute and Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty.

And they have $58.5 mil­lion in cash to do their work from GV (you prob­a­bly still think of them as Google Ven­tures), which is step­ping in with ARCH Ven­ture Part­ners, F-Prime Cap­i­tal, and Bio­mat­ics Cap­i­tal to form the orig­i­nal syn­di­cate.

To be suc­cess­ful, the Verve team un­der Kathire­san will not just have to demon­strate their ap­proach can safe­ly work, but al­so that it ul­ti­mate­ly can be done on a mass ba­sis in eco­nom­ic terms. That’s a tall or­der, but they do have some ad­van­tages, per­haps most no­tice­ably the ad­vances the ground­break­ers have made at the FDA, says the sci­en­tist.

“Gene edit­ing has the po­ten­tial to com­plete­ly trans­form the treat­ment par­a­digm for the dis­ease,” says Musunuru. “Pre­clin­i­cal stud­ies con­duct­ed in the field, in­clud­ing work done in my lab, have shown the promise of gene edit­ing to safe­ly re­duce cho­les­terol and oth­er coro­nary artery dis­ease risk fac­tors.”

So far, gene edit­ing in the le­git­i­mate R&D world has been cen­tered on the painstak­ing ad­vances of a hand­ful of pro­grams aimed at rare dis­eases. And Verve will start with its own rare ail­ments, tar­get­ing pa­tient pop­u­la­tions with the high­est un­met med­ical need. But Kathire­san isn’t drop­ping his pres­ti­gious aca­d­e­m­ic roles to search for mar­gin­al gains. He wants to tack­le the whole threat on a world­wide ba­sis.

That, of­fi­cial­ly, starts at Verve to­day.

Dan Skovronsky, Eli Lilly CSO

UP­DAT­ED: An­a­lysts are quick to pan Eli Lil­ly's puz­zling first cut of pos­i­tive clin­i­cal da­ta for its Covid-19 an­ti­body

Eli Lilly spotlighted a success for one of 3 doses of their closely-watched Covid-19 antibody drug Wednesday morning. But analysts quickly highlighted some obvious anomalies that could come back to haunt the pharma giant as it looks for an emergency use authorization to launch marketing efforts.

The pharma giant reported that LY-CoV555, developed in collaboration with AbCellera, significantly reduced the rate of hospitalization among patients who were treated with the antibody. The drug arm of the study had a 1.7% hospitalization rate, compared to 6% in the control group, marking a 72% drop in risk.

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Christian Itin, Autolus CEO (Autolus)

#ES­MO20: Au­to­lus pro­vides glimpse of next-gen­er­a­tion CAR-T pro­gram, show­ing ear­ly pos­i­tive safe­ty da­ta

CAR-T therapies were hailed as a breakthrough when Novartis received the first FDA approval for Kymriah back in 2017. Though highly effective at treating certain types of blood cancers, CAR-Ts are also associated with severe and potentially deadly side effects, including lethal instances of cytokine release syndrome.

With this in mind, Autolus Therapeutics is looking to take a crack at a safer CAR-T and presented Phase II cohort data for its AUTO3 program at virtual ESMO 2020. The data showed that, among the 35 patients in the cohort being treated for r/r diffuse large B cell lymphoma, there were no instances of Grade 3 or higher CRS. Eight individuals saw Grade 1 inflammation while another four patients reached Grade 2.

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Sean Bo­hen's break from bio­phar­ma is over. The ex-As­traZeneca CMO has re­tired his Big Phar­ma jer­sey and is now — hap­pi­ly — run­ning a lit­tle biotech

The last I had heard about Sean Bohen, he had stepped out of his high-profile job as chief medical officer at AstraZeneca at the beginning of 2019 as CEO Pascal Soriot triggered a broad-ranging R&D shakeup. And then, earlier this week, I got a chance to catch up.

It turns out that Bohen decided at the time that he would not just jump into a new job in the booming biopharma business. As an oncologist, he had worked on the big programs at AstraZeneca, and before that he was at Genentech. That was good for a ticket to just about anyplace in the big biopharma world. But he felt it was time to stop and think things through.

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Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) (Tasos Katopodis/Pool via AP Images)

UP­DAT­ED: A mi­cro-cap with a po­ten­tial­ly promis­ing coro­n­avirus drug en­lists mask-skep­tic con­gress­man for DSMB

A small biotech that has talked up a potentially promising but unproven treatment for Covid-19 enlisted an unusual member for its study’s Data and Safety Monitoring Board: a sitting Republican congressman with close ties to the CEO and a history of mask skepticism.

NeuroRx, an Israeli biotech testing a lung inflammation drug in Covid-19 patients, tapped Maryland Rep. Andy Harris for the DSMB, Politico reported. Harris is an anesthesiologist but not a biostatistician, and he has questioned the CDC about a “cult of masks” in the US. Harris has known NeuroRx CEO Jonathan Javitt since the two worked at Johns Hopkins together over 20 years ago.

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#ES­MO20: Alk­er­mes of­fers their first snap­shot of a ben­e­fit for their next-gen IL-2 drug. But why did 1 pa­tient starve to death?

Everyone in the cancer R&D arena is looking to build new franchises around better drugs and combos. And one busy pocket of that space is centered entirely on creating an IL-2 drug that can be as effective as the original without the toxicity that damned it to the sidelines.

Alkermes $ALKS formally tossed its hat into the ring of contenders at virtual ESMO today, highlighting the first glimpse of efficacy for their candidate, ALKS 4230, as both a monotherapy as well as in combination with Merck’s Keytruda.

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Albert Bourla (Photo by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Pfiz­er match­es Mod­er­na with their full Covid-19 tri­al blue­print — As­traZeneca says it will un­veil its pro­to­col 'short­ly'

Yesterday, after sustained public pressure as Moderna released its Phase III Covid-19 trial blueprint, Pfizer released its own full trial design for their vaccine trials. The move was designed to boost transparency and shore up public trust in the vaccines, but it also revealed differences in how the two companies are approaching the much-watched studies while failing to satisfy the demands of the fiercest advocates for transparency.

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Stronger to­geth­er? Boehringer and Mi­rati team to put first KRAS-KRAS com­bo in the clin­ic

Researchers are still waiting to see how much any of the vaunted KRAS drugs now in the clinic can, after decades of preclinical research and some early human studies, help patients. But while they do, two of the leading developers will look to see whether a KRAS-KRAS combo might pose a better shot than any KRAS alone.

Boehringer Ingelheim and Mirati have signed a collaboration to combine Mirati’s closely-watched lead KRAS inhibitor, MRTX849, in a clinical trial with the pan-KRAS blocker that Boehringer has quietly developed with high expectations behind their flashier contenders.

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#ES­MO20: Re­gen­eron, Sanofi eye an­oth­er first for their PD-1 con­tender Lib­tayo with promis­ing da­ta for on­col­o­gy niche

Regeneron and Sanofi took another step forward in the long march towards a greatly expanded market for their late-bloomer PD-1 checkpoint Libtayo.

The two occasional allies posted an objective response rate of 31% for Libtayo among 84 patients suffering from advanced cases of basal cell carcinoma at virtual ESMO. That spotlights progress for 26 patients, 5 of whom had a complete response. The data also reflect a boost in the number of responses seen from the last cut of the numbers.

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A long­time Cy­tomX ex­ec re-emerges at Syn­thekine, an $82M Stan­ford spin­out

Debanjan Ray apparently had big plans when he quietly left his long-held CFO spot at CytomX back in March 2019. He had gotten his own biotech.

Still in its early stages at the time, that biotech, known as Synthekine, is now ready to start talking. They are breaking out of stealth mode today with $82 million in Series A funding led by Canaan Partners, Samsara BioCapital and The Column Group, and plans to rapidly bring a handful of engineered cytokines, including a rejigged IL-2, into the clinic.